“A drive through Joshua Tree National Park might take a couple hours, viewing the park from the road. An exploration of the park would take a lifetime.” -Elliot Koeppel
We took a lot of road trips when I was young, and I often found myself sitting in the back of the car, looking out the window at the New England landscape. I am used to scenes of trees, stone walls and grass framed by a car window. As I write this today from a dreary, damp Maryland the leaves are an orange/brown and falling in droves. Even around here on longer car rides (when I’m not driving) I let my gaze soften and the scenery blurs into familiar colors and shapes. A few weeks ago I was out in Palms Springs with Ken on a business trip and we were able to drive up to Joshua Tree National Park, a place that was only familiar to me from the U2 album. Our time was limited since the purpose of the trip was for business, so most of what we saw was through a car window. Totally different from today, the air was dry, the temperature was over 100 and the landscape was something altogether different. The landscape is so vastly different from anything on the east coast. I’d much rather experience nature outside of a car, but because our time was limited we had to experience the park in a time-effective manner. I will make it back to Joshua Tree to camp and spend more time, but here is how we did Joshua Tree in a time-crunch drive thru style.
We entered the park from the south, stopping at Cottonwood Visitor Center to grab a map. As with most national parks, cell service is sparse. We always make sure to have a paper map, enough water and food, and basic knowledge of where we are going before we start exploring. Overall the park feels prehistoric. The sands, granite mounds, sparse succulents and steady sunshine all made me think of the Flintstones, or that old Dinosaurs TV show. The park is a transition zone where the Mojave and Colorado deserts intersect. Coming in from the South East, we were in the Colorado desert first. Here the dark brown, barren mountains reminded me of the ones I’d seen outside of Vegas and the window of the hotel in Palm Springs. Our first stop was at the Cholla Cactus Garden. There’s a short mile or so loop that allows you to meander through a prickly patch of Cholla Cacti. It’s a wonder to see how tall some of them grow, especially since the bottoms are brown and appear dead, supporting the light green top halves of the plants. As the sun continued to climb, so did the temperature. Even in October, the high was over 100 degrees that day and it is amazing to witness the resourcefulness of nature and what adaptations were made for survival.
Continuing Northwest the Chollas start to become less and less prevalent, and Joshua Trees began to pop up as we moved more into the Mojave Desert. Common myth is that the name of the tree came from the Mormons, but this is not proven and in fact they are not even technically trees. Here’s an expert’s explanation of the genus and history of this bizarre-looking plant that has inspired people from gold miners to U2 fans. We parked along Pinto Basin Road to make our way over to Arch Rock. A popular spot for Instagram photos, the path was pretty crowded to get to the arch. As we walked the short 1.3 lollipop loop, I noticed that not only had the flora changed, but the landscape as well. Far beyond us sat the tower dark brown behemoth mountains (I have since been hiking on the East Coast since returning from this trip and getting to writing and they just do not compare to the height of their much younger West Coast counterparts). There were also a ton of what looked like giant boulders. These mounds are White Tank Granite, that were formed when magma was forced up from below the earth’s surface and forced into the overlying rock. These mounds harden to form the large rock clusters that are prevalent in that part of the Mojave Desert. Arch Rock is a natural arch that we climbed on top to take in the views, take a few photos, and then got off to let the next group do the same.
The next stop was to check out Skull Rock, which is right off the East-West road in the park. The parking along both sides of the road as we approached was an indication of the popularity of this granite formation. Centuries of erosion have carved out two holes that look like eye sockets of a skull. Although the Discovery Trail is a short loop near Skull Rock, the crowds plus time crunch helped us decide that we’d get out for another stretch of the legs a bit further up the road. We passed Ryan Mountain and entertained the thought of climbing it, but it was noon, 100 degrees and we didn’t have much time left before we had to be back for a company dinner. People described the hike as “brutal.” It is a little over 1,000 feet in elevation gain over the course of a mile and a half. Ken and I decided that we probably shouldn’t speed climb a mountain at the hottest part of the day because it likely just would not be that much fun. So it’s on the list of things we must do next time we are in Joshua Tree.
The last two places we explored were also crowded, but allowed enough space to not be on top of people. We went to Barkers Dam next. This is an easy 1.1 mile loop that takes you by a dam that was created in 1900 to store water for cattle. The day we went, the dam was dry, but water marks indicate that this is not always the case. It is hard to imagine how people survived out in the desert in the early parts of the 1900s, let alone raised and moved cattle. As we walked along the trail, we noticed that the path was hard to distinguish from spaces between the plants, but there were more plants closer to where the dam is. The cattlemen continued to use this dam, really a man-made tank, until mid century. It was raised 6 feet in 1949 by William “Bill” Keys. Later as we made our way around the loop back towards the parking lot, we got to see petrographs. The original forms of art were carved into the large granite outcrops, and some were preserved in a cave-like area and painted to highlight them. More of these were once prevalent in the park, but people have ruined many of them by painting over them, and also by climbing on the rocks.
Our last stop in the park before we had to leave was Hidden Valley. This is another loop trail of about a mile. This parking lot was crowded, but the trail and surrounding area was large enough that it didn’t feel too crowded. A sign at the entrance to the trail explains that Franklin D. Roosevelt established the park in 1936, and just prior to that Bill Keys blasted an opening in one of the rock walls, allowing people and animals to enter. To enter into the Hidden Valley you have a brief climb up and over the rock walls by way of stone stairs. Once you come down the other side into the valley, you can see why this place was used by cowboys and ranchers to hide stolen cattle. The “valley” is a surrounded by walls of rock that are fun to climb up. We climbed up a sloping wall to the top of to get a view from the top, and saw many rock climbers scaling the vertical side walls. We couldn’t stay long in the valley, we had to get back to Palm Springs in time for a company dinner, so with one last climb up a set of stone stairs, we descended back down and made our way back to the parking lot.
As we drove the last bit of Park Boulevard, we noticed the Joshua Trees were bigger at the West end of the park. Some of them had bent down and looked like they were growing back down into the sandy ground. We paid our entrance fee as we exited at the West Entrance Station by purchasing a National Parks Annual Pass, something I hope we have the time and resources to get the most of over the next year.